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What can we expect from the planned Brexit inquiry

March 26th, 2019

A look at what’s happened before

In January 2004 the Hutton report into Dr David Kelly’s death was awaited with anticipation. The hearings had put the actions of politicians, civil servants, journalists, senior BBC management under a forensic scrutiny they would not normally expect.

The Iraq war – the inquiry’s bloody context – had turned into a desperate civil war. No WMD had been found. The sad story of a respected scientist apparently bullied to his death as part of a greater political game between press and politicians seemed to epitomise what happens when powerful people act without a care for the individuals affected by their actions. We did not know the names of dead Iraqis but we could relate to a bearded, bespectacled, middle-aged civil servant and his grieving family, caught up in affairs over which they had little control.

When the Tories were given advance access before the Parliamentary debate, there were hopes that Michael Howard would be able forensically to wound – perhaps fatally – Blair, who had so tied his fortunes to this war and a snobbishly derided US President.

It did not turn out like that. Howard was given precious little to work with. It was the BBC which was severely criticised and lost its Director-General and Chairman of the Board of Governors. The politicians escaped, perhaps not scot-free, but freer than the public hearings had led everyone to expect (to the surprise of observers who had heard the evidence). And they went on the attack: immediately and brutally. It seemed as if Blair had got away with it.

It was not until July 2016 when the Chilcott report was finally published that a far more damning conclusion was given on the whole Iraq adventure, surprisingly so as Chilcott and his assessors had not particularly distinguished themselves as attack dogs during the hearings. By then, of course, the public and Blair’s party had largely made their minds up about the whole sorry affair.

It was seen – at best – as a misguided venture; at worst – as a war crime deliberately embarked upon on the basis of intentionally fabricated evidence. Even if Chilcott had absolved Blair of all sins, it is unlikely that his detractors would have changed their minds.

And now we have the Mueller report. Or only a summary for now. But the two reports – particularly in the reactions to them – have much in common, nonetheless.

  • A lot of hopes pinned on them: The inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death was seen as the route by which Blair’s mendacity over WMD would be exposed. Similarly, Mueller has been seen as a way to attack Trump, legally, and on the basis of evidence, collected by an unimpeachable source. As senior staff close to him were caught in Mueller’s net, surely – the thinking went – Trump cannot be far behind. Alas, too many people believed what they wanted to be true. Blair must have lied. Trump must have colluded with the Russians. The disappointment when these were not the conclusions was palpable. Never let your hopes run ahead of the evidence. Or, perhaps, never express your hopes so publicly until you’re sure they’re backed by evidence, might be the moral to be learned.
  • “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.” (reputedly said by Mario Puzo, The Godfather’s author). Wise words. So infuriated by Trump’s victory have the Democrats been that they have assumed that he must therefore be evil or criminal or guilty or maybe all three, that his victory cannot have been legitimate. Much easier to assume that his victory was stolen than engage in analysis of why people might have voted for him, despite his obvious flaws. In much the same way, those who think of Blair as a war criminal absolve themselves of the need to ask whether the decision to go to war in Iraq might have been more finely judged at the time than it now appears, fail to ask themselves what one should do in circumstances where there is a rogue state potentially able and willing to use WMD, fail to consider that even not acting is a decision with consequences, some of them just as sanguinary, as intervention in a faraway state about which we know little. Intervention was bad then; so non-intervention is good now, or so the analysis (this is to be kind) goes. Hate is never a good basis for coolly assessing one’s opponent, let alone their arguments.
  • What is reprehensible is not necessarily criminal. A difficult concept to grasp at a time when the distinction between that which may be morally or politically wrong or unwise and what is criminal or a breach of the law is not always understood. Or hand-waved away as a mere technicality. It isn’t. There is much which politicians and others do which should not have been done. That does not make them criminal. If being wrong made one a criminal there would scarcely be an innocent man or woman alive. Too often the law is used to attack a political opponent because there are no political arguments or they are too weak or unpopular. But politicians need to be defeated politically. The law has its place, especially if the law is broken. But it is not a substitute for politics.
  • Attack is the best form of defence. Ask Alistair Campbell. Ask Trump who, in typical fashion, is now claiming that the report exonerates him completely when it pointedly does no such thing. Expect the next arguments to be about (i) publication of the whole report and Attorney-General William Barr’s good faith (or lack of) if he does not publish it; and (ii) what exactly Mueller meant – and why – when he said “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
  • Playing into your opponent’s hands: If the inquiry’s target claims that the inquiry is a witch hunt, best not to respond by acting in a way which reinforces this. This is hard to do, especially when a report’s conclusions are being misrepresented. But it can all too easily look as if you are being a sore loser, as if you are unwilling to accept the findings of a report because it did not say what you hoped. That is the quickest way to ensuring that no-one listens to what you do have to say.

The most important lesson is perhaps this. It is not the immediate reaction which will determine the long-term judgment. Blair won the immediate battle and went on to win another election. But the Iraq war will always be essential to an understanding of his government and himself. That assessment – that it was an error – has played a key part in the change in the Labour Party today (Corbyn owes his leadership at least in part to it) and to British governments’ approach to foreign intervention.

Similarly, Trump may have avoided immediate jeopardy, though full publication may still be a worry and there are other investigations around. He will likely not be impeached. He may well be re-elected. But the long-term view of how Trump deals with foreign regimes, how he approaches his legal obligations, how he uses or abuses power is not likely to be favourable to him. This may continue to affect him long after he has left the White House, though he may not care. It will certainly affect how future Presidents and politicians act. He would be wise not to declare victory over the witch hunt quite so soon. 

Cyclefree





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This morning’s front pages after the night before

March 26th, 2019

On Betfair it’s a 54% chance that she’ll be out in 2019 Q2

Mike Smithson




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The road to Brexit gets even more complicated

March 25th, 2019


Picture Judy Goldhill

After another dramatic evening at Westminster TMay is still there but with far less control

A series of Commons votes have taken place in the past hour including one that is potentially very troubling for TMay. MPs voted to take control of the Brexit process which is a big defeat for the government.

On Wednesday a series of  so-called indicative votes will be held to try to to see if there’s a majority for a form of Brexit.

Meanwhile TMay has ruled out a third vote tomorrow on her Brexit deal but says she says she could hold vote later this week.

LAB leader Corbyn declares the PM’s deal “dead” and she must abandon it.

Mike Smithson




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Both TMay and Corbyn drop to record lows in YouGov’s favourability tracker

March 25th, 2019

I always feel a sense of ownership with the YouGov favourability ratings for shortly after the referendum, in 2016, I got into a  discussion with the pollster about a line of questioning that I suggested that the firm should do. My desire was favourability ratings on key figures.

The first ones ran here as the PB/YouGov Favourability Ratings when TMay had a net plus 12 while Corbyn was a net minus 25. This is calculated by subtracting the “unfavourable” responses from the “favourable” ones.

Of all the leader rating formats I regard favourability as the best. Ipsos-MORI have satisfaction ratings which has the problem that opponents of a party could well be satisfied with their leader if they perceived him/her as poor.

We ran these in conjunction with the pollster several times until YouGov adopted it as one of their regular trackers.

An interesting feature the current May/Corbyn comparison is a gender divide when TMay is the subject. Men give TMay a net negative of minus 50 while women have her as minus 28. With Corbyn there is nothing like as big a difference.

Amongst GE2017 LAB voters just 42% have a favourable view of Corbyn with 52% an unfavourable one. TMay still has a small net positive, plus 6%, with those who voted for the party last time.

Mike Smithson




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What four years of Govey as EdSec did to the teaching vote

March 25th, 2019

But was this more down to Dominic Cummings?

With Theresa May’s long term prospects in the job not looking very good there’s a lot of focus in the betting markets on who will succeed her as Conservative leader and Prime Minister. Currently the joint favourites are the ex-Mayor and former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and the current environment secretary, Michael Gove.

It is the electoral potency of the latter that this post is about particularly the way he ran Education from 2010 to 2014.

The data from the above two polls in was first published on PB in July 2014 shortly before the reshuffle that cost Michael Gove his job as Education Secretary in Cameron’s cabinet

The polling was by YouGov and although commissioned by the NUT covered all teachers and not just those who were members.

As can be seen there was a whopping decline in the Tory share and a huge increase in those of EdM’s Labour.  This was much more than the margin of error.

In many ways the contrast between the two sets of data does not come as a shock because it was fairly well known and widely publicised that Michael Gove had alienated the teachers during his period in charge at the Department for Education. It was widely reported that staff in his office use the term the “blob” to describe those working within education.

Perhaps the relationship between the party and teachers wasn’t helped by the fact one of his senior AIDS was Dominic Cummings who was later to make his name running the leave campaign. A very aggressive individual who was determined to make an impact.

It has been widely reported that Gove got the boot in the 2014 reshuffle on the advice of Lynton Crosby who was influenced the PB post. Maybe

Ir is noticeable that Gove’s period at Justice and Environment have struck very different tone.

Mike Smithson




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Pete Buttigieg – the 37 year old former Rhodes Scholar now running 3rd in Iowa

March 25th, 2019

Probably worth a punt as a good long shot

A new poll for next year’s Iowa caucuses is just out and puts a 37 year old former Rhodes Scholar from Indiana who you have probably never heard of in 3rd place.

He’s Pete Buttigieg and the polling reflects the fact that over the last few days he’s been the hottest property on  US political TV shows. He’s telegenic, personable, articulate, gay and almost exactly half the age of front runners Biden and Sanders. Like Bill Clinton he is a former Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford University. He’s currently mayor of South Bend in Indiana.

I’ve had a few bets on him in the past hour for president and the longest price I got was 40/1.

We are now only a couple of months before the first Democratic primary debates and the fact that Buttigieg has satisfied the donor threshold is a key development.

The Democratic party is desperately looking for someone who can beat Donald Trump and a plus for Buttigieg is that he comes from Indiana. Generally the Democrats receive their most support from East and West Coast States with a very big void in the middle of America. Someone from the centre might just be appealing.

The Iowa caucuses take place in just over ten months making the state the first to decide in the Democratic primary. That Buttigieg is polling so well there is very good for him and will help with fundraising and building the team that’s necessary to have a chance of winning the nomination.

His odds will tighten.

Mike Smithson




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With all the questions over TMay’s future punters it a tad less likely that she’ll be out soon

March 24th, 2019

But it’s still a 67% chance that she’ll cease to be PM before Brexit

There’s little doubt that just about the worst thing that Theresa May has done during her short Premiership was the broadcast to the nation five nights go when she appeared to blame Parliament for the problems in getting her  brexit deal approved. It was that apparent denial of the democratic process that has angered a lot within the House and outside.

More and more people are commenting on her robotic style and her complete lack of flexibility when faced with a massive issue that will impact on the nation for generations.

As to whether she is going to have an early exit  that requires the near unanimous view of her cabinet to ask her to go. Even then, knowing Theresa May, she might just stand firm.

So the next few days are extraordinarily hard to predict and we have tomorrow morning the cabinet meeting when, if last night reports are to be believed, she is going to be confronted by her ministers. I’ll believe it when I see it.

What is dawning on people is the fragility of her situation particularly in view of her own health issues. That she’s able to carry on in the way she does in many ways is amazing but worrying.

Mike Smithson




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Viewcode on the chronicle of a bet foretold

March 24th, 2019

It is 11pm on March 21st 2019 as I write this. Press releases from EUCO indicate that an unconditional extension is granted to the UK, rendering my bet on departing the EU on March 29th lost. It may be instructive therefore to examine the bet: its aim, placement, and implications.

THE MOTIVE

I bet from a variety of motives. There is the desire to know the world and measure myself against it, to commit to a prediction, simple greed, and the purity of the wager itself: in gambling there is just you, the bookie, and no excuses. There is also a motive that has been out of fashion for some years: the insurance bet.

The 70s was the time of high-tax Labour governments, and businessmen used to bet on Labour in the hope that their winnings would salve the wound. Similarly for no-deal Brexit: projections of £1=$1.15 or lower and £1=€1 concerned me greatly and I wished to offset it, to compensate for the malevolence of others in these foolish times. So I decided to bet on a no-deal Brexit.

THE OPTIONS

These days bookmakers offer a wide range of options on a given event, and a list of them is in previous posts. But there were two constraints that made the selection difficult. I stick to high-street bookmakers so online options were not viable, and all the options matured on the March 29th so I could not insure against a no-deal post-29th. After some consideration I selected Betfred’s 9/4 on exit by March 29th, got £500, and resolved to place the bet.

THE PLACEMENT

I work away from home during the week, and this year I am in a Midlands town: a large town or small city, dependent on mood. As you walk away from the train station the architecture changes, becoming rougher: bay and forecourted, but peeling plaster, dirty from car exhausts, an edge place between suburb and town. The shop door shines white under dirty yellow street lighting and I go in around 8:30pm: screens to my right, FOBTs behind me, counter to the back, bloke tidying up, nobody else in: there are no monsters here.

I show him the screenshot on my phone: political betting is so rare I have to screenshot the website so they know where to find the odds. After some confusion (he thought I was protesting) bloke nods, finds the odds and the slip is filled out. He takes the notes, I keep the slip, I walk out and back to my weekday room.

THE PROBLEM

I thought that an extension was politically impossible, but after the bet was placed somebody on PB (@AndyJS ?) posted a link to a meeting of Conservative party association chairs approving one. The impossible was becoming possible before my eyes.

A later post by @RichardNabavi linking to a Guardian article reinforced it: if an extension was requested then the UK would grant one, and the ERG would bleed away the time to a no-deal. This eventuality was not covered by the bet, and the news tonight confirms it. The bet is lost.

THE LESSON

If no-one is corrected then no-one learns their lessons. So what do we learn? The error was twofold: the bet I chose did not match the risk to be covered, and I inaccurately estimated the probability of an extension. To estimate probabilities “Superforecasters” (Gardner and Tetlock, ISBN 13: 9781847947154) and “The Signal and the Noise” (Silver, ISBN 13: 9780141975658) both recommend the selection of a prior probability then incrementally modify it over time as news comes in.

This is good technique but is time-consuming and I have little free time. But it seems I will have to endure. The second part is more serious: the mismatch between bet and risk. My self-imposed restriction against online betting meant that I was extremely restricted in my choice of bet and I had to select one that did not fully cover the risk. Opening up an online account or even a telephone account would enable me to select a bet more tailored to the risk, but that is difficult as I would have to run it past Compliance and they do not respond quickly. But I shall consider it.

THE MITIGATION

The extension of Brexit day leaves the risk of no-deal uncovered: I am exposed, in the jargon. The ERG will still agitate for no-deal and nobody to date has defeated them, so I still need to cover myself post-29th. I will look over the weekend for a new bet but it might be simpler to just buy dollars. At the time of writing £1=$1.31 according to XE.com, so it would prove a good hedge against a putative fall in sterling. As a matter of policy I am transparent in my betting and I note my bets here as they happen: it enables good feedback and better decisions. So I will let you know what happens.

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